Governments around the world are waging war on a new battleground: Social Media. Their fighting force is an army of trolls. And if you are reading this story, you’ve probably been drafted.
Troll armies have helped overthrow governments and control populations. The playbook has been repeated in places like Turkey, India, and the Philippines. Once installed, trolls become engines of state propaganda, shouting down and crowding out voices of dissension.
While America is embroiled in an endless back-and-forth about Russian election meddling, this larger development has largely been missed: The 2016 election was just a data point in a much larger, more alarming trend. Trolling has become perhaps the most powerful weapon in 21st Century warfare.
If free speech has a weakness, this is it. And it’s being used against democratic societies across the globe.
Sometimes called “patriotic trolling,” it’s a stunning reversal from the way dictatorial regimes used to handle the information superhighway — by shutting off the on ramps. Increasingly, those in power are instead flooding the highway with misinformation, overwhelming it with noisy and malicious traffic. It’s easier, and far cheaper, to control populations with a hashtag than the barrel of a gun.
The Great Firewall is being replaced by the Great Troll.
“States have realized that the internet offers new and innovative opportunities for propaganda dissemination that, if successful, obviate the need for censorship. This approach is one of ‘speech itself as a censorial weapon,’ ” write authors Carly Nyst and Nicholas Monaco in a chilling new report called “State-Sponsored Trolling: How Governments Are Deploying Disinformation as Part of Broader Digital Harassment Campaigns.” The report was published by the Institute for the Future, which says it is a non-partisan research group based in Palo Alto, California. “States are seizing upon declining public trust in traditional media outlets and the proliferation of new media sources and platforms to control information in new ways. States are using the same tools they once perceived as a threat to deploy information technology as a means for power consolidation and social control.”
What does state-sponsored trolling look like? Government officials and political leaders encourage personal attacks on opponents and civil rights groups. They sow seeds of disbelief around the work of traditional watchdogs, like judges and journalists. They encourage public vitriol and cynicism by citizens to protect themselves and their policies from traditional scrutiny and debate.
In some cases, professional trolls are hired to sow seeds of doubt and frustration. Other regimes sign up volunteers into an organized “cyber militia” to harass journalists and civil rights groups. But in many cases, citizens are nudged to do the dirty work of trolls with little or no prompting from those in power.
You probably see evidence of this kind of behavior every day on your social media feeds; people lining up to lob personal attacks on those who disagree. That’s low-level trolling, however. The stakes get higher, fast.
Bloomberg recently investigated the phenomenon worldwide and came up with a long list of examples:
“In Venezuela, prospective trolls sign up for Twitter and Instagram accounts at government-sanctioned kiosks in town squares and are rewarded for their participation with access to scarce food coupons, according to Venezuelan researcher Marianne Diaz of the group @DerechosDigitales. A self-described former troll in India says he was given a half-dozen Facebook accounts and eight cell phones after he joined a 300-person team that worked to intimidate opponents of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And in Ecuador, contracting documents detail government payments to a public relations company that set up and ran a troll farm used to harass political opponents.”
If you are shocked by the spread of conspiracy theories like Pizzagate online — and the emergence of a cottage industry that profits from the spread of such crazy ideas — don’t be. It’s not an accident, the report says.
“The new digital political landscape is one in which the state itself sows seeds of distrust in the media, fertilizes conspiracy theories and untruths, and harvests the resulting disinformation to serve its own ends,” the state-sponsored trolling report says. “States have shifted from seeking to curtail online activity to attempting to profit from it, motivated by a realization that the data individuals create and disseminate online itself constitutes information translatable into power.”
The authors spent 18 months examining widespread trolling efforts in seven countries around the world: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Ecuador, the Philippines, Turkey, Venezuela … and yes, the United States.
“Such attacks appear organic by design, both to exacerbate their intimidation effects on the target and to distance the attack from state responsibility,” the report says. “However, in the cases we studied, attributing trolling attacks to states is not only possible, it is also critical to understanding and reducing the harmful effects of this trend on democratic institutions.
- The report cites multiple examples of government propaganda by trolling.
- In China members of the “50 Cent Army” are paid nominal sums to engage in nationalistic propaganda
- In Turkey, journalist Ceyda Karan was subjected to a three-day-long trolling campaign in which two high-profile media actors played a key role:
- Pro-Erdoğan journalist Fatih Tezcan, who has more than 560,000 followers, and Bayram Zilan, a self-declared “AKP journalist” with 49,000 followers. Tezcan and Zilan were central players in a campaign that involved 13,723 tweets against Karan sent by 5,800 Twitter users
- The Twitter account of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi follows at least twenty-six known troll accounts, and the prime minister has hosted a reception attended by many of the same trolls
- Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte has given bloggers active in online harassment campaigns accreditation to cover presidential foreign and local trips. Duterte groomed a cyber militia of around five hundred volunteers during his election campaign, eventually promoting key volunteers to government jobs after his election (For more on Duterte’s use of trolls, read this Bloomberg story.)
- The Turkish government maintains a volunteer group of six thousand “social media representatives” spread across Turkey who receive training in Ankara in order to promote party perspectives and monitor online discussion
- In Venezuela, former vice president Diosdado Cabello, who currently hosts the TV show Con el Mazo Dando (Hitting with the Sledgehammer) on the Venezuelan state-owned TV channel VTV8, used his TV show and a Telegram channel associated with it to encourage Twitter attacks on opposition politician Luis Florido using the hashtag #FloridoEresUnPajuo (“Florido, you’re a lying idiot”). Attacks on Florido lasted for days; they were vitriolic and crude and frequently accused him of being a traitor to Venezuela.
- In Russia, state-sponsored trolling has been professionalized, with “troll farms” operating in a corporatized manner to support government social media campaigns. The most well-known troll farm is the Internet Research Agency (IRA), but there are reportedly scores of such organizations all around the country
Trolling efforts work in part because the trolls have access to data which help them game social media algorithms; their posts fool Facebook and Twitter into giving them more prominence. That worked during the U.S. presidential campaign, when the Russian troll group Heart of Texas gained 200,000 likes soon after launch – more than the official state GOP page.
“In one form of algorithm gaming, trolls hijack hashtags in order to drown out legitimate expression,” the report says.
Don’t be part of a troll army
If all this sounds to you like a fairly traditional propaganda campaign, I agree. It’s just far more targeted, thanks to the information age. And, Americans seem particularly vulnerable to propaganda at the moment, for a variety of reasons. But you don’t have to be.
If you don’t want to be part of the troll/propaganda army, what should you do? Do all the things your high school English said to do. Don’t be a troll. Don’t say things just to get an emotional reaction, because you like setting people’s hair on fire. Always provide evidence, stick to facts, and don’t be drawn into ad hominem attacks. Rise above them. When you see a vitriolic post by someone whose Twitter handle includes random strings of numbers, or who otherwise has a thin social media profile, assume you are dealing with a troll – even if the person seems to be on your side. Remember, America’s enemies simply want to sow discord, they don’t really care whose “side” they’re on. At a bare minimum, don’t repeat things you haven’t verified yourself just because you agree with the sentiment expressed. Read numerous independent sources before passing on information.
Meanwhile, if you see or hear someone dismissing independent media with over-the-top criticisms, question their motives. Disagreeing with facts is healthy. Questioning someone’s integrity and patriotism, or persuading others to ignore an entire group or industry, should be viewed with deep skepticism.
Here’s how you recognize trolling, according to the Institute for the Future report:
- Accusations of collusion with foreign intelligence agencies.
- Accusations of treason.
- Use of violent hate speech as a means of overwhelming and intimidating targets. Every female target of government-backed harassment receives rape threats
- Creation of elaborate cartoons and memes.
- Trolls often accuse targets of the very behaviors the state is engaging in. In numerous countries, for example, trolls make claims that targets are affiliated with Nazism or fascist elements. Politicians and their proxies use claims of “fake news” as a form of dog whistling to state-sponsored trolls.